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Jim Vogel

Jornada del Muerto

Oil on canvas panel in antique reclaimed wood frame (framed in collaboration with Christen Vogel), Image: 29"h x 35"w, framed: 36"h x 41"w, Item No. 20825,

La Jornada del Muerto by Sage Vogel

"I've been to the place you're asking about," a man at the end of the bar said.

"You have?" I asked him. "Are you sure?"

He nodded.

"Can you take me there? I'd like to see it for myself."

"No, and no," he said, taking a sip from his glass and hissing through his teeth after he'd swallowed. "No, I will not take you there. No, you would not like to see it."

I moved over and sat on the stool next to his so we could talk without the other patrons hearing us.

"I can pay you," I told him in a hushed tone.

"You could offer me all the money in the world, and I'd still say no. I'll never go back there. I'd pay you to stay away if I could afford to."

"This is a matter of great importance. You wouldn't believe me if I told you the whole story. My name is Elúd Martínez. I'm a researcher for-"

"Señor Martínez, you can't tell me the whole story because you don't know it. And whatever you think you know is wrong."

"If that's the case, can you set me straight? Tell me what you know? I'll heed your warning if it's as bad as you say."

"Look, stranger, I can't say how bad it is because it's beyond words. Do you understand?"

"No, I don't understand."

The man sighed and tipped his cup back, finishing it in a single swallow. He placed some coins on the bar and stood up to leave.

"I'll go there alone if I have to," I said, speaking to his back. "I'll find out the truth one way or another."

He stopped but didn't turn around. The bartender and the few other men drinking in the cantina all had their eyes on us.

"Tell him the tale, Lugardio," one of them said.

"Wouldn't be right to let him go," said another.

"He'd never make it back."

"He'd never make it at all."

The man I'd been speaking to, Lugardio, turned around and looked me in the eye.

"Buy me another drink, and I'll give you the story."

I nodded to the bartender as Lugardio sat back down on the stool. He waited until a full glass was in his hand before beginning. The other men moved their chairs closer to listen in.

"The place you're looking for is inside La Jornada del Muerto. I know La Jornada better than most anyone alive. I grew up near its northern edge, south of Socorro. The first time I crossed it, I was eleven years old. I went with my father, a private courier. He taught me the trade, and I took it on once I was grown. Good money for small batches of hard, dangerous work. I must have crossed La Jornada over six dozen times before making my last trip.

"It is not a place fit for the living, hence the name. Everything there is dead. The lakes are dead. There’s dead creatures stuck in the stones that have turned to stone themselves. Even the volcanoes are dead. Dead, dead, dead. Anything that is alive out there is either cursed or unnatural, or both.

"The only reason anyone ever risked La Jornada is because travel was far faster than any other route around it, until the rails were laid. It's flat, it's clear, and you can cut straight across. Just follow the graves, there's plenty, and you won't lose your way.

"It’s not an endless desert like you might have heard. The trail the Spanish took is less than a hundred miles. The journey can be done on horseback in two days time if you carry enough water. It will last for the rest of your life if you don't. Now, you can cross in a single day in a motor car, which is how I always did it once I bought my own.

"I thought I was clever, driving my Model T across that damned desert. I estimated I was moving about ten times as fast as a wagon train. On a good day, they move twelve miles. I could manage that in an hour when driving on the flatter stretches. The car could carry more water and food than a horse, plus gasoline and a spare tire besides. After my first ten or so trips in that soft seat, in the shade of the car's cover, I got confident enough that I forgot not to be a fool.

"The trail's straighter than most, but it's got a couple shallow bends in it. In my hubris, I decided to cut one, move off the familiar path, and try to shave a half hour off my trip. I'd made myself preoccupied with breaking my record time. I pushed the car too hard. The radiator blew on me.

"I was stranded smack dab in the middle of a dead man's desert, the only water around was the cloud of steam coming from the T’s hood. Worse still, I was miles from the main track, and my odds of running into another living soul were low enough on it already. Far off the beaten path where I'd coasted to a standstill, my odds were zero.

"My father's advice rang in my ears like funeral bells. 'Don't push down a path that's not your own. Any prize you imagine at its end will be not but a burden, a danger, or death herself.' Advice so good and simple, I'd never given it much thought.

"I got down from the car to survey the landscape, hoping and praying for some miracle. I walked a ways, headed towards a rocky rise I figured I could climb to get a look around. I hadn't gone far when a strong odor hit my nose. It smelled like cucumbers. I didn't know it at the time, but when you smell cucumbers where there aren't any, that's not a salad the Lord has sent down from the heavens. No, Señor Martinez, that's the scent of a snake infestation."